December 10, 2012

Review: The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien


The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien  
Published: 1973, Ballantine Books (Originally 1937) Genre: Children's Fantasy  
Source: Personal book  
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Then something Tookish woke up inside him, and he wished to go and see the great mountains, and hear the pine-trees and the waterfalls, and explore the caves, and wear a sword instead of a walking-stick.



I first read The Hobbit back in sixth grade. I was pretty proud of myself that I not only read a book like this, but that I actually enjoyed doing so (And I realize that Tolkien intended for the audience to be children, but honestly, have you read it? It doesn't read like a children's book, or not like any children's book we are familiar with nowadays.). I read it again for my eighth grade English class (which happened to coincide with the release of the 2002 film version of The Two Towers. I may have read it one final time amid The Lord of the Rings craze I found myself a happy participant in, but it's safe to say it's been close to ten years since I've read The Hobbit. So of course a rereading was essential before heading to the movies this Friday to check out The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

Bilbo Baggins is a hobbit: a small, human-like creature that lives under hills and enjoys the simple comforts of life. Bilbo doesn't think his needs are any different from any other hobbit until he's presented with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: thirteen dwarves are in need of a thief's assistance on a journey to the Lonely Mountain to regain the treasure that the dragon Smaug has stolen from their ancestors. Their traveling companion, the wizard Gandalf, suggests Bilbo as a potential ally, despite the fact that Bilbo has never gone on any adventures and believes that he wants nothing more out of his life than what he already has. Nevertheless, Bilbo is eventually persuaded and the group faces many perils and wonders as they travel to the Lonely Mountain and a confrontation with Smaug.

I was actually pleasantly surprised at Bilbo's characterization within The Hobbit. My knowledge of The Lord of the Rings far eclipses that of The Hobbit. And The Lord of the Rings is all about bigger messages, themes, and the journey itself. Yes, Tolkien does give Frodo and Aragorn in particular traces of characterization, but the trilogy is ultimately bigger than any one character. The Hobbit, too, has larger themes and messages, but I found the story to ultimately focus on Bilbo and his character's development over the course of the novel. Relatable characters are one of the main aspects I turn towards in any novel, so I was glad to be able to create some sense of understanding with Bilbo.

It was a bit jarring, however, at how light-hearted the majority of the book seems. Characters are singing left and right, all difficulties are surmountable, and no one suffers permanent physical or mental damage. A huge part of The Lord of the Rings questions the presence of hope in this world that has seen so much darkness and despair. How can the characters continue to beat the odds? How can they really believe they have a chance at defeating this seemingly all-powerful enemy? Much, much darker than The Hobbit, which made adjusting to The Hobbit's tone a little more difficult, even with the knowledge that Tolkien had different audiences in mind for these works.

Through Middle-earth, J.R.R. Tolkien has created one of the most fleshed-out and fully-realized worlds ever to grace the fantasy literary genre. Perhaps my statement is biased a little by the fact that I've seen the film versions of The Lord of the Rings more times than I can count, but I do remember seeing the first film and then reading the first book and realizing how incredibly faithful the film was to its literary predecessor. There's just something so wonderful about the world that Tolkien has created, from the extensive histories to whole races and cultures and languages. That's the mark of phenomenal worldbuilding. And, really, what fantasies don't need at least some worldbuilding? Tolkien raised the bar on fantasy worldbuilding for sure. It was wonderful experience to reread The Hobbit and focus on the roots of the world that would be the focus of Tolkien's literary career.

I could get critical here about certain aspects of the book like the lack of any female character, the weak characterization of the dwarves, or the inconsistencies between the world of The Hobbit and that of The Lord of the Rings but I don't see the point. Not that The Hobbit isn't worthy of examination on its own merits, but I do think that the fantasy literary market owes a great debt to Tolkien and his works. Story inconsistencies aside, no one is better at worldbuilding than Tolkien. The Hobbit is a book that I will need to read again every once in a while; it deserves to be savored with a wave of nostalgia and gratitude.
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Amanda

Amanda loves few things better than sitting down with a cup of tea and a book. She frequently stays up far too late, telling herself she just needs to finish one more page. When she's not wrapped up in the stories of others, Amanda works as a children's librarian in a public library.

7 comments:

  1. Wonderful review, Amelia! I'm reading this one right now and like you, I'm finding it immensely childish. I love Lord of the Rings, but this lacks that same sense of urgency and darkness and despair, so I can't say I'm a huge fan unfortunately. I still love it though...it's Tolkien after all! ;)

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    1. Thanks, Keertana! I'll just say if the book seems more childish then I think you'll be happily surprised by the film - it was made to be much darker than the book! And yes, above all else I have to respect Tolkien for the fantasy literary genius he is!

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  2. Yeah I definitely wasn't aware that this was meant to be a children's book, it most definitely looks like an adult book but I guess a lot of that probably is in my head because it was in the adult section of the library when I was a kid. I've never read it (as far as I remember, and I can't imagine I would forget...) but I know I really NEED to read it! I am SUPER excited about the movie and unfortunately I don't think I can read it before then. But I'll have to do so sooner rather than later!

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    1. Definitely read it soon, Candace! I am a huge advocate of reading the book and watching the film. It is a solid, good book, if not a great one.

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  3. I never read The Hobbit. I remember being in elementary school while my older cousin was reading this and he was entranced by it. He read all The Lord of the Rings, too. I LOVED the movies for The Lord of the Rings and I did try reading the books after, but I just couldn't get into them. Wonderful review. :)

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    1. I know. The LotR books are difficult to read, or at least I thought so as well. I love the movies so much that I made myself read them. Should do a reread soon, but it'll be a little more difficult than what I normally read! :) But anything for my LotR love. Thanks, Rachel!

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